Earlier this week, in the Southern District of Indiana, dozens of lawsuits were filed by people you’ve probably never heard of. But I bet you’ve heard of the central defendant: the NCAA, which is on the other end of what will eventually be more than 200 filings that represent a coordinated effort toward some kind of reckoning on head trauma in the college game.
The first of the lawsuits came to light on Jan. 25, and they have kept coming this week, from players at schools across all divisions of football. They are currently filed in the district where the NCAA is headquartered, but they’re likely to be part of multidistrict litigation in Chicago, according to Law360.com. Each former player who filed a lawsuit will represent groups of players from his school, and each suit will have its own specific list of complaints.
Football in 2019 is under fire from plenty of directions. This week, The Guardian reported that National Federation of State High School Associations data shows high school football participation is down 6.1% over the past decade. The NCAA makes a mockery of itself on a regular basis. The NFL is a tone-deaf mess. But these lawsuits aren’t directly related to any of those more public lines of attack. They’re not going to scare a kid or his parents into switching from the gridiron to the baseball diamond. There are no famous faces attached and few momentous facts to be discovered.
But there is a chance that one of these borderline anonymous players might mount a compelling enough case to go to trial. And that trial would have a jury, and that jury could rule that a former player with a banged-up brain deserves a payout.
If all that happens, an insurance company would have to open its wallet. And anyone who’s ever caused a fender-bender knows what comes next: Premiums get jacked up, because we all have insurance with the hope of never using it, and football becomes really, really expensive.
We’re a long way from any of that happening. It’ll be months or even years, and some plaintiffs will settle while others will disappear, bringing 200-plus cases down to 20 and eventually down to just a few. It’s incredibly difficult to prove that the NCAA and individual schools were aware of the risk of concussions and knowingly exposed players to the hazards inherent in football. Plus, the longer the player in question played, the harder that proposition gets. It’s difficult to assign full blame to the NFL when a plaintiff had previously competed in Pop Warner, high school and college. So it’d be slightly easier to implicate the NCAA—but just slightly—which is why these numbers matter. The wave of cases boost the low odds of any individual case succeeding. That’s a law of probability even an NFL ref couldn’t rule against, and it’s the single most important thing about this week’s news.
You’re excused if you missed the headlines, though. They have been lost in the churn of the Super Bowl spectacle and the looming shadow of National Signing Day. For the average college football fan, this week was instead marked by USC hiring a new offensive coordinator and Lincoln Riley getting a raise. Those stories and concussion lawsuits can seem like they exist in two distinct universes: one where Nick Saban is a deity, and another that’s about to get bogged down in mounds of legal paperwork concerning the lives and brains of men who never earned a cent playing.
But these universes are one and the same, no matter how hard it is to squeeze them into the same frame. These lawsuits could make it only as far as pre-trial discovery, and they’d still matter. Witnesses would testify, communications would be made public, and the concern would spread. It’ll probably take a significant payout for damages to get the world’s attention, and that might not come in this round of litigation, but it could exist in this universe.
The lawsuits will wind through the legal system for six months or two years, during which time another signing class will fax in their national letters of intent and another handful of coaches will be cut unfathomable checks. Alabama will probably play Clemson again. The product on the field will change not at all, even if fewer kids suit up for Pop Warner teams or the NCAA’s critics gain a wider audience. The only way college football loses its foothold is if schools can’t afford to put on the pageant that lures the players and hooks the fans—and the most likely reason those funds might dry up is if insurers hike premiums dramatically. One successful lawsuit might start a chain reaction that could make football too expensive to sustain.
We’re years away from that, probably decades. But for now, that possibility is still believable, even in a world where 25 million people watch the national title game and Kyler Murray looks primed to turn down guaranteed millions of dollars of baseball money for the NFL. But after years of looking to high schools and city parks for symptoms of football’s demise, we’d be smart to concentrate on the courtrooms and the players who have been through the wringer, not the kids who never will.
SI’s Michael McCann contributed to this piece.